Printer-friendly versionSend by email
The Sceptic, Edited by Nanora Sweet and Barbara Taylor
Commentary:

Hemans and Bossuet's Oraisons: Readers of Hemans may be delighted to learn that five of the ten "Oraisons" in Bossuet's collection concern women. Arguably, then, they are among the models for Hemans's often funerary "Records of Woman." Hemans draws her epigraph from the "Oraison Funèbre d'Anne de Gonzague," also known as the Princesse de Clèves, who spent three years in a convent before leaving and entering into a period of libertinism and scepticism. The oration's date, 1685, coincides with the Revocation of the Edit of Nantes. Hemans cites Bossuet elsewhere, for instance in epigraphs to "Stanzas on the Late National Calamity, the Death of the Princess Charlotte" and The Siege of Valencia. — See Hemans's "Stanzas on the Late...Calamity...Princess Charlotte"

Reason and Imagination:
The epigraph itself taps into Hemans's own scepticism about "reason" as the enemy of "imagination" or belief, whether in Christianity or, at least as keenly, in legendary accounts she valued. For Hemans and sceptical reason vs. imagination, see Henry Fothergill Chorley, Memorials of Mrs. Hemans with Illustrations of Her Literary Character from Her Private Correspondence, 2 vols. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1836), 2: 171n. The passage refers to the sceptical historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr who contested the existence of Numa and Egeria, tutelary figures for Hemans's Roman/Italian/Mediterranean poetry. Chorley notes that Niebuhr seemed to Hemans "a sceptical inquirer into the traditions of antiquity; and it will be remembered with what small complacency she was prepared to regard any destroyer of the ancient legends in which her imagination took such delight." For more on the Hemans and the Egeria legend with which she was identified in particular, see Maria Jane Jewsbury, "The History of a Nonchalant," The Three Histories; W.M. Rossetti, "Prefatory Notice," The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans (London 1873 etc.; New York, etc.: Moxon, etc., 1873, etc.), pp. 22-23; Nanora Sweet, "Hemans's 'The Widow of Crescentius': Beauty, Sublimity, and the Woman Hero," Approaches to Teaching British Women Poets of the Romantic Period, ed. Stephen C. Behrendt and Harriet Kramer Linkin (New York: MLA, 1997), pp. 104-05. The poet's son Charles Isidore Hemans argues that Niebuhr's scepticism about Numa and Egeria is a form of imagination: Historic and Monumental Rome (London: Williams and Norgate, 1874), pp. 45-47.

Reason and Necessity: On Hemans as cutting the Gordion tangle that Bossuet's sceptics make of "reason," see her own pointed syllogisms or enthymemes below on the sceptic and love and the sheer necessity of faith. On Hemans and the "necessity" of faith, see the poem's major review by John Taylor Coleridge (and a discussion of its attribution to him) in the Quarterly Review 24.47 (Oct. 1820): 562 Article 5.

Coleridge remarks, "But the argument of ['T]he Sceptic['] is one of irresistible force to confirm a wavering mind; it is simply resting the truth of religion on the necessity of it; on the utter misery and helplessness of man without it."


On Hemans and Gibbon: Hemans's favorite sceptic historian, Edward Gibbon, famously credits Bossuet with his own brief and youthful conversion to Catholicism: "the English translations of two famous works of Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, the Exposition of the Catholic Doctrine, and the History of the Protestant Variations, achieved my conversion, and I surely fell by a noble hand." And as though experiencing his first Roman conquest, he says,"I read, I applauded, I believed." (The Autobiography of Edward Gibbon, ed. Oliphant Smeaton [London: Dent; New York: Dutton, n.d.], p. 52). There's no evidence that Hemans read Gibbon's autobiography, but as I suggest in my essay on Hemans and Rushdie (2001), she was drawn to his "decline and fall" historiography; and as I suggest in this site she was drawn to sceptical debate about Roman history as provoked by Niebuhr.


Then ye shall appoint you cities...The slayer here appears to stand in here for the sceptic whose destructiveness and incursions into the "temple state" have worried Hemans in "Heliodorus in the Temple" as well as in the present poem. In the passage, the ecclesiastical system offers the slayer refuge from raw vengeance, though only to deliver him up to formal justice: verse 12 continues, "that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment." This passage introduces several subversive notes into Hemans's scenarios: Insofar as the sceptic is her audience for this text, he is offered sanctuary but at great judicial risk. Insofar as she is aiming at a more general audience (in the manner of the occasional poem), our lot is that of the fugitive murderer. Further, note that at this point in the poem "the Avenger" she refers to is not the eye-for-eye vigilante of the Numbers text but God Himself, further to her dubious characterization of Him in the poem as Avenger and Chastener.

Finally, this text on "refuge" or "sanctuary" forges another—also subversive—link to the poem which so often displaces The Sceptic in criticism, The Forest Sanctuary, see the work of Anne Hartman and Andrew Elfenbein.In calling these implications "subversive" of Hemans's declared scenarios, I do not argue that they subvert her poem or poetry. An epideictic work characteristically works back and forth between praise and blame, aiming in the process to recast the human lot and the terms of its dispensation. Once again Hemans approaches the level of "indeterminacy" that Terence Hoagwood attributes to Byron's sceptic method.

 

About this Page

Published @ RC

January 2004

Region